Friday, December 04, 2009

A Black Friday Sojourn

The Retail muse headed out on Black Friday, looking to see, amongst all the hype and excitement, is the experience of a Black Friday shop-a-thon worth it? Is the experience remarkable or just another example of consumer madness? Are there any good retailers out there? Is anyone standing above the fray? Why on earth do we do this?

Hanging out at one of the world's largest shopping malls, the whole media frenzy of Black Friday appears to "The Muse" as almost warrior like. Early morning, and consumers stand in tight bundles, clutching flyers and lists, pushing gently against the doors, waiting for the mall to open. They are ready for battle. Determined and focused. The credit card as their weapon.

Security Guards (If you can call them that - they look to be either 17 or 71), stand inside the doors. Deer in the headlights eyes, glare back at us, as the guards check their watches every few seconds, anxious fingers at the door locks. It's the Berlin Wall of Retail. A stand off between the shoppers and the keepers of safety. The seconds silently tick away.

Outside, the shoppers are anxious. Everyone has a different time, the pushing and shoving becomes more prominent. There is a thirst for deals, The smell of discount in the crowd. The shoppers push forward, bursting through the open door and filling the mall instantly.

The noise level raises as the shoppers converge on the retailers. Wal-Mart, the choice of many, seems almost bursting at the seams, as shoppers rush the aisles. One wonders how cash registers could be ringing so quickly after opening, but is confirmed by the customers grabbing tchockys and toys from the main aisles and racing to the tills. SALE SALE SALE, screams the store banners. $40 toy now $14.96!!, as customers grab brightly colored plastic, made in Taiwan, items from the displays.

The shopping process has a military single mindedness to it. Customers with lists and crumpled flyers. Carts slipping down the rows as shoppers throw goods into the basket. Penciling through the Christmas list in 15 minutes flat, and then a mad dash to the register to complete the invasion.

The Staff are already gloomy. Already fearful, and ready to run to the closest hiding space. To save face this year, Wal-Mart has security everywhere. 17 year olds marching down over-merchandised aisles looking for shoplifters, while 71 year olds check bags as shoppers leave with their discount prizes. The sound of children crying raises above the din.

It's 9:15 am.

This is enough for "the Muse" and we leave Wal-Mart, wondering if Black Friday is just a huge version of a College Store at Rush time. Toys instead of textbooks. But not really well organized. Half the registers down, the self scan barely working, the staff unprepared, and still under the influence of yesterday's tryptophan. So we head out into the mall, walking through the crowds, looking for something to inspire us. A retail inspiration in a sea of luridly colored bargain boudoirs

It doesn't take long for disappointment to set in. For all the money and effort that retailers spend on Black Friday promotions, the message doesn't seem to make it to the sales floor. Most stores seem caught off guard, (or more likely purposely under staffed). Posters of "crazy" deals hang limply from the windows. Sticky tape abounds, an air of carelessness seems to permeate the retailers preparations.

Half empty boxes of Black Friday merchandise are scattered across the retail floor. Staff try to empty them, but customers are quicker and more eager. They grab and throw, barking out size demands and clutch their finds, as if they are an extra in an Indiana Jones movie. "The Gap" and "H and M" seem especially lost in the madness. Control has gone out the window. All that careful folding, and hanging, and wrapping, is reduced to a pile of mismatched finery by 10 am. We feel like vultures in "H and M", picking at the cotton blend carrion of the display table.

It's almost lunch time, and we haven't seen anything that screams remarkable. It's a big mass of discount and discontinued. All wrapped up in quasi holiday retail cheer. Santa looks weary. Even the "Old Navy" mannequins have lost their perky edge. And then, out of the mass of shoppers, amongst the bland cookie cutter retail promotions, we find a couple of retailers that make the trip worthwhile.

"Bath and Body Works" is the first. Although packed with women grabbing hand sanitizers in every scent imaginable, and a feeling that you are trapped in a world of scented candles, the atmosphere is positive and friendly. Shelves and fixtures are well stocked, and where they are not, staff are busily restocking. Merchandise is well positioned and everything is clearly priced. The wooden slatted floor is clean, and musician Sting, crooning about winter, adds a relaxing ambiance to the hectic madness.

How this retailer stands apart from all the others though, is the staff. From the moment you walk in, the staff is helpful, friendly, and ready to provide you with a tote bag for all your purchases. They scramble up the shelves to get items down from the top shelf, they rummage around in nook and crannies finding more stock, and above all they are "there" for you. By the time you hit the fast moving payment line, you realize what a pleasant, and yes, how remarkable visiting this store is.It might be the biggest rush of all time for "Bath and Body Works", but this store know how to prepare, how to train their staff and above all, how to make the experience for their customers memorable.

Finally, a Black Friday sojourn can't be complete without a stop at the Apple Store. Here again, no matter how busy, this store knows that they are in control. Friendly Apple boys and girls greet you at the main entrance. They position themselves for maximum visibility, exuding a curious mixture of calmness and enthusiasm. The store itself, all white and minimalistic, offers adventure - even when you need to push your way through the teeming throngs. Sales staff wait patiently. When three or four customers corner a Apple Sales rep, they work systematically and quickly through the questions. Imagine this process anywhere else. The clerk would leave screaming and sobbing in the staff room. At Apple they are in control. They know their stuff and they have been well trained. Very little fazes them, and when the grubby 8 year old child runs his ice cream stained fingers over all the Ipods, they patiently smile and show the child the kids programs. A response that is a bit anathema for "The Muse".

After a couple of pleasant retail experiences, "The Muse" felt a little bit better about the state of retail. There is so much that can be improved, so many opportunities for excitement, and remarkable experiences. But, as we stood in the mall, late afternoon of Black Friday 2009, it seems like there might be a glimmer of hope left in the consumer circus.

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